SUDAN WATCH: Rebels' rivalry subverts hope for Darfur peace

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Rebels' rivalry subverts hope for Darfur peace

TINA, Sudan -- A grisly new battle between rebel factions is raging here in Darfur, casting doubts on the future of a peace agreement to end the war, writes Lydia Polgreen for New York Times News Service May 21, 2006. Full report via Chicago Tribune - copy:

The tactics of the rebels have grown so similar to those of their enemies that an attack on this dusty village on April 19 bore all the marks of the brutal assault that first forced its people to flee their homes three years ago. Soldiers in uniform, backed by men toting guns on camels, stormed the village, burning huts, shooting, looting and raping.

Only this time, the soldiers were not government troops, as they had been before. Nor were the men on camels and horseback the fearsome janjaweed, who often destroy villages alongside government forces in a campaign of murder and rape that the Bush administration has called genocide.

Instead, last month's attack came from a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, the same rebel movement that says it wants to liberate the non-Arab people of Darfur from the yoke of Arab domination. Alongside the rebels were armed nomadic herdsmen from the Zaghawa, a non-Arab tribe that is supposedly fighting for the people of Darfur against the government.

"It was the Zaghawa who did this," said Ismail Rahman Ibrahim, one of Tina's sheiks. "We used to fear the Arab janjaweed. Now we have another janjaweed."

Carnage's origins complex

The carnage in Darfur has often been described as a fight between Arabs and Africans or a battle between herders and farmers. But neither captures the complexity of the ethnic and economic tensions in the region that have fueled the new hostilities between the rebels.

The leader of the largest rebel faction, Minni Minnawi, signed a peace agreement with Sudan's government on May 5 to end the conflict in Darfur, in the face of mounting pressure from international diplomats.

But the leader of a second faction, Abdulwahid Al Nur, refused, saying the agreement did not meet basic requirements on issues like power-sharing and disarmament of the janjaweed militias. He has remained unwilling to sign, but the African Union is so keen on bringing him on board it has extended the deadline for him to sign until the end of the month.

The split between the leaders was initially dismissed as irrelevant by diplomats negotiating the peace agreement to end the Darfur war. But the depth of that rift now threatens to undermine the shaky new accord, which the Bush administration has hailed as a hard-won diplomatic victory.

In an interview, Al Nur said he had no regrets about not signing, because, he said, the accord failed to address the root causes of the conflict.

"I refused to sign the agreement because it forgot that the crisis in Darfur was first a political crisis, before it developed into a military crisis and now humanitarian crisis," he said. "So, if you really want to address the crisis and put a real end to the crisis, you have to go back to the root, which is political."

Al Nur, who founded the SLA, and Minnawi, his rival, both come from non-Arab tribes. But Al Nur is from the Fur, farmers who make up the largest ethnic group in Darfur, while Minnawi comes from the Zaghawa, a much smaller group of non-Arab nomadic herdsmen who also live in Chad and Libya.

Marriage of opportunity

Initially they fought side by side with the same aim -- forcing the government in Khartoum to grant greater autonomy and a larger share of the nation's wealth to the impoverished region of Darfur. It was a partnership that made sense. The Fur are the largest ethnic group in Darfur, but they lacked tactical expertise. The Zaghawa had plenty of military experience and access to money and weapons from the military in neighboring Chad, which is led by Zaghawas.

But tensions soon emerged between the groups. The Fur grew suspicious of the Zaghawa, believing that they wanted to form a Zaghawa nation in Darfur and dominate the other tribes living here, a suspicion some analysts believe was fomented by the government in Khartoum in an effort to force a split between the rebels.

In the area around Tina, Fur villagers were forced from their homes by the thousands as the rebels and the government battled for control over every inch of territory in pitched battles. But the rebels took firm control last year, so much so that farmers who had fled to camps around Tawila returned to their fields to plant their crops.

The brief tranquillity came to an abrupt end with an assault by Minnawi's fighters on several towns held by Al Nur's faction.

Tiger Muhammad, a commander in Al Nur's faction, said the attack on Tina and other towns his faction controlled was unprovoked.

"It seemed to be the only objective was to displace the civilians," Muhammad said.

In nearby Susuwa, where the Minnawi faction has its base, commanders denied attacking civilians. Sounding very much like the government in Khartoum, which has blamed tribal conflicts for the violence in Darfur and has denied playing a role in arming militias, the Susuwa commanders said the conflict between the Fur and the Zaghawa here was simply a matter of stolen property.

"The conflict is due to the stealing of animals," said Muhammad Daoud, a commander of the force, arguing that Fur villagers steal animals, so Zaghawa herders go looking for them in their villages.

That explanation does not sit well with the thousands of villagers huddled in a makeshift camp with scant water, food or health services that has sprung up next to the African Union base in Tawila. Most of the people living in grass huts here arrived as a result of the recent violence between the rebel factions.

"First it was the janjaweed and the government, now it is the rebel factions," said Abubakar Moussa, who fled Tina after the April 19 attack. "Separation is the nature of humanity. We don't care much whether it is Abdulwahid or Minni. We need one nation under peace in Darfur."


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